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1837

“European Views of American Democracy:” Young America Confronts Tocqueville

“The ultimate ascendency of the democratic principle is inevitable: it is the part of wisdom [to provide] for the changes which it will naturally bring about.”

Editor’s Introduction:

Alexis de Tocqueville has been considered one of the most important and insightful observers of American society virtually from the beginning of his nine-month tour of the country in 1831.  His masterful two-volume work Democracy in America has been a staple source for virtually all social scientists studying the United States and democracy around the globe for nearly two centuries.  Contemporary Americans, however, found much to criticize about the learned, aristocratic Frenchman’s interpretation of their country.  In the following document, John L. O’Sullivan’s hugely significant literary magazine, the Democratic Review, surveys Tocqueville’s first volume and counters its most glaring misinterpretations.

At the heart of the Democratic Review’s critique lay the divisive concept of class.  Not only did the Review charge that Tocqueville’s views were necessarily tainted by his national and aristocratic backgrounds, but the nature of his American tour (essentially wining and dining his way through genteel circles) distorted his perceptions of how social classes formed from blocs of consenting and conflicting individuals.  Essentially, Tocqueville remained unable to grasp the central force uniting the vast, diverse American public and polities—what the Review elsewhere refers to as the “Voluntary Principle,” or what Tocqueville himself called “Associationism.”  According to the Review, what de Tocqueville thought was a careless disregard for law, order, and stability; what he assumed was the tyrannical, hegemonic power of the majority; what he saw as kowtowing, defeated, trampled minorities—they all were in fact evidence of the widespread satisfaction with democratic republican governance in the United States and the relatively limited and tame expressions of social conflict.  Historians of the last century have struggled to conclusively determine whether American history has been driven further through overwhelming and all-encompassing “Consensus,” or deeply divisive and revolutionary conflict.  In American reactions to Tocqueville like that from the Democratic Review below, we see some of the earliest attempts to recognize—in a systematic, scientifically historical way— the concepts of “American exceptionalism” and “Manifest Destiny.”  The beauty of the New World was that it allowed individuals from the Old to remake society in concert with Natural Law, preparing, in time, “an asylum for all Mankind.”  While Tocqueville may have divined the eventual preponderance of democratic governments, the Review charged him with misunderstanding the fundamental forces, the spontaneously equilibrating factors, binding democratic republican citizens together in common cause:  the preservation of Liberty against the encroachments of Power.

 

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

 

“European Views of American Democracy,” US Magazine & Democratic Review, Vol. I, No. I.  1837.

M. de Tocqueville has been led into errors, not always unimportant, in part by the prejudices of some of the circles of society into which he naturally fell—in part by the mere effect of the imperfect observation and hasty generalization, which, to a certain extent, are almost unavoidable in this kind of writing. But there are no faults in his book which are not entirely consistent with great powers of thought and language, the most upright intentions, and an uncommon freedom from the class of prejudice to which the race of travellers are more particularly liable.

The general object of M. de Tocqueville is to ascertain the results of the principle of democracy, as applied to practice in the United States…He remarks in his introduction that, on arriving in America, he was struck very forcibly with the general equality of conditions, and on farther observation and reflection, was fully satisfied that this is the substantial fact which lies at the bottom of our political institutions. Having come to this conclusion, he thought he could perceive, on turning his mind back to the state of things in the other hemisphere, a general tendency towards a similar equality of conditions. In illustration of this idea, he traces at considerable length the changes that have taken place in the structure of society within the last five or six centuries—all of them indicating the progress of the democratic principle, and the constantly increasing influence of the mass of the people, as compared with that of the hereditary privileged orders of the feudal times. This tendency he considers as providential—that is, as a result of general and not accidental causes, and as being consequently in a great measure beyond the control of any one generation. The ultimate ascendency of the democratic principle is inevitable: it is the part of wisdom, not to attempt to prevent it, but rather to facilitate it by anticipating and, as far as may be, providing for the changes which it will naturally bring about. To aid in this is the object of the present work. The mind of M. de Tocqueville expands with a feeling of sublimity under the contemplation of this glorious and inspiriting truth; and, to use his own phrase, he writes under the influence of a religious awe, inspired by the contemplation of this great revolution, the results of which, as of all great revolutions, the French philosopher gratuitously, and we think invidiously, presumes to be necessarily uncertain. He is not the panegyrist of the United States, as leading this mighty moral movement; nor is he a bigoted admirer of democratic principles and forms of government…In the United States, therefore, he studies, not merely the institutions of the United States as such, but democracy itself—its nature, its inclinations, its passions, its prejudices…

It is one of the remarkable features of the present state of the world, that it exhibits the two great principles of government—liberty and despotism—exemplified in practice, face to face with each other, in a purer form and on a more extensive scale than they have ever been before. While the free states of other times and countries have been mostly single cities, or confederacies of cities, inferior in power to the monarchies by which they were surrounded, the United States of America offer the splendid spectacle of a whole continent administered on the principle of pure, unadulterated liberty. In the great military empire of Russia, on the other hand, despotism, stretching her giant grasp over the vast extent of two continents, and developing the richness of resources and energy of action that belong to the youth of nations, wears perhaps a more imposing, and, to those within the sphere of her influence, a more dangerous aspect than she has ever worn before. But still, while we believe the principle of democracy to be established firmly and forever as the political faith of the whole western continent, and as destined, at no distant time, to obtain the ascendency in the west of Europe, we cannot but cherish the hope that it is destined also to conquer to itself, with a certain, though slow and toilsome progress, the eastern half of that continent…

M.de Tocqueville, although, in applying his observations on this country to the state of things in Europe, he keeps his eye chiefly on France, where the tendency is strong towards democracy, does not lose sight of the opposite tendency in another quarter, and expresses In the closing paragraphs of his work substantially the same opinions as those here stated…

M.de Tocqueville traces the equality, which he remarked as the principal result of our institution, to its origin in the point of departure of our people; that is, in the character and habits of the first settlers…

His tone is, on the whole, decidedly favorable to the cause of democracy. It is evident, however, that his views of persons and things were in some respects unfavorably modified by influences of which he was himself unconscious, and from which few European travellers among us can escape. In speaking of the character of political parties, M. de Tocqueville correctly remarks, that however various may be their origin, and apparent or immediate objects, they all resolve themselves ultimately into one or the other of the two great divisions of society, which have always existed in free countries, and which labor respectively to extend and diminish the influence of the government; in other words, the aristocracy and the democracy. Now, in this country, the nucleus of the aristocratic party, by whatever name it may be temporarily known, will always be found in the monied men of the commercial cities. But this is precisely the class of persons among whom a well recommended traveller is naturally thrown on his first arrival in the country, and from whom he receives his first impressions, which cannot but give a general bias to his future observations…In this way we account in part for the tone of disparagement in which our public functionaries and institutions are spoken of by most travellers, substantially liberal in their sentiments, and even to a certain extent by M. de Tocqueville. This gentleman, in fact, hints significantly that he has received important revelations of this description, in the confidence of private intercourse, which the persons making them would not like to proclaim upon the house-top, or even publicly in conversation;—but which they trust without reflection to the passing stranger! The weakness of the evidence, upon which M. de Tocqueville professes to found some of these unfavorable opinions, forms a singular contrast with the gravity of the charges, and serves of itself to prove that they rest substantially on such authority as we have just referred to—that is, that they are the opinions, not of M. de Tocqueville, but of the aristocracy among ourselves upon Democracy in the United States. We shall briefly notice some of these charges.

“Many Americans, says M. de Tocqueville, consider the instability of the laws as a necessary consequence of a system of which the general results are good. But there is nobody, I believe, in the United States, who pretends to deny that this instability exists, and who does not regard it as a great evil…”

Far from admitting the justice of the charge, of a too great proneness to frequent change in the laws, we have always considered the stability of our political institutions, in the midst of the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds that has been constantly going on around them ever since their establishment, as one of their most remarkable characteristics, and the strongest proof that could possibly be given of their substantial goodness…Wo to the impious reformer who would lay sacrilegious hand on venerable evils, consecrated by time, and by the vested interests which never fail to vegetate most luxuriously from the most corrupt soil—Wo to him, we repeat; he will be denounced as a visionary theorist, a raving madman, an agrarian, a destructive, a sans culottes, and, the English language (beautifully rich as is the vocabulary of abuse which it can furnish at need) being exhausted, a new word,—fearfully compounded,—of uncouth sight and sound,—redolent of fire and brimstone,—and pregnant with monstrous but mysterious meaning, will be invented and fastened upon him, to frighten the whole community out of its propriety, as at the cry of ‘mad dog.’

That a Frenchman, of all persons, should consider our laws and institutions as obnoxious to the charge of instability, is really curious…If M. de Tocqueville will compare the history of our government, during the fifty years of its existence, with the history of any which he may choose, for any fifty years in the whole tide of time, and will produce an example of one that has suffered so little change of any kind, except in the tranquil and gradual growth of prosperity in the course of half a century, we will admit the correctness of his stricture. The fact undoubtedly is, that from the adoption of the constitution to the present day, the Government has suffered no change whatever, in any essential point—although the period has, in our opinion, unquestionably arrived, when the slow development, during the course of half a century, of the different elements combined together as ingredients at the formation of the system, some for good and some for evil, requires some modifications in its forms, to adapt it to the evident progress of public opinion within that period. In points of minor importance, our laws are no doubt occasionally altered, though not more frequently than those of other nations…

But what are alterations in the duties on imports, in the charter of a bank, in the mode of collecting the revenue, needed by an economical Government, in comparison with the tremendous convulsions that constantly agitate the kingdoms of the old world? Let M. de Tocqueville go back to the spring of 1789, when the first written constitution of France and the present constitution of the United States both went into operation. Let him then trace the successive reorganizations of the whole frame of the government that have since taken place in his own country…

Let M. de Tocqueville recollect what has happened during the same time in the other parts of Europe—in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany; let him observe the boasted constitution of England herself, after breasting triumphantly the attack of the continent in arms for a quarter of a century, breaking down at last under the results of its own internal vices; let him look especially at the Spanish colonies on our continent, placed, as nearly as possible, in the same situation with the United States, yet thus far, as M. de Tocqueville himself correctly remarks, utterly unable to reach any solid basis, and floundering along from one revolution to another through a chaos of anarchy and wild uproar; let him go back, if he will, to the past history of the most celebrated nations of ancient or modern times, such as Rome, France, modern Italy, or England—at their brightest periods—and produce any one of fifty years, in the history of any of them, so free from internal change or convulsion as that of the United States for the last half century. If this comparative tranquillity on our side proves nothing more, it at least absolves our institutions from the charge of “instability…”

[Tocqueville further stated that:]

The only historical documents in the United States are the newspapers. If a single paper is missing in a file of one of these, the chain of events is, as it were, broken—the present and the past cannot again be united. I am quite sure that fifty years hence it will be more difficult to collect materials for the history of the United States, during the present time, than for that of France during the middle ages. This instability, in every thing relating to the administration, has begun to extend itself to the habits of the people. I might almost say that it has already become a pretty general trait of character. No one troubles himself about what was done before him—no method is adopted—no collections are made—no documents are brought together, even when it might be done most easily—no value is set upon such papers by those who happen to possess them. I have myself original documents which were given me in some of the public offices, in answer to my inquiries for information.

As we cannot suspect the good faith of M. de Tocqueville, we are rather at a loss to conjecture on what ground he can have conceived views so entirely at variance with the truth as these…We need hardly say that in this country public records are kept in nearly, if not quite all, the cases in which they are kept in Europe, and with equal regularity, particularly in the courts of justice, and in the various departments of the General and State Governments. Even the towns have their public records, as we are told by M. de Tocqueville himself; who, in speaking of the constitution of the municipalities, enumerates, among the other authorities, the town clerk, who keeps a record of the proceedings at town meetings, and of other public acts. Some of these town records have been kept very regularly from the first settlement of the country, and are habitually consulted, with great profit, by those who are engaged in historical researches. It is scarcely necessary for us to advert to the numerous and valuable collections of papers, by eminent public men, known to exist, such as the Jefferson papers…the Washington papers…the Madison papers…the papers of the two Adams…the immense diplomatic correspondence of the Government…the papers of Franklin…Nor will we make more than a passing allusion to the historical societies of the different States, which make it their precise object to collect, arrange, and, as far as their means permit, publish every thing which they can find of interest, respecting the country at large, and especially the State and vicinity in which they are seated. Some of these societies have been very active and successful in their researches…To this vast mass of documents, must be added the newspapers and other journals, which form a most valuable body of contemporary materials, and which, we need not say, exist in this country to a extent unknown in any other…The historian will be much more likely to find himself laboring under the embarrass de richesses. It will require indeed, we apprehend, the most untiring industry to master those multifarious treasures, and the highest talent and taste to digest their essence into a compact form…

3.  Another trait in the political aspect of our community, which M. de Tocqueville signalises as one of the most injurious, is the supposed…tyranny of the majority…

The most absolute monarchs, he remarks, cannot prevent the circulation of works, inculcating democratic doctrines, among their subjects, even at their courts—In the United States there is nothing published, either openly or secretly, in support of aristocratic and arbitrary principles of government. The inquisition has never been able to suppress the circulation, in Spain, of works opposed to religion. In the United States no such books are written. The governments of Europe are often compelled to punish severely the authors and publishers of immoral works. In the United States no such punishment takes place, because no one dreams of publishing a work of this description. Now, continues M. de Tocqueville, it cannot be supposed that there are no persons in the United States who prefer the aristocratic or monarchical theory of government to the democratic; who are destitute of religious faith; who are inclined, by character, to licentiousness and immorality. There must be a certain number of persons of this description; who constitute, of course a minority of the people. There is nothing to prevent them from expressing their opinions but their respect for the contrary opinion of the majority.  Done, consequently, the majority in the United States wield a power more absolute, more tyrannical, than all the inquisitions and despots of Europe a power which is fatal to all freedom, not merely of action and speech, but even of thought. There is no liberty of mind in America. I know no country where there is less freedom of discussion, less real independence of mind, than in the United States…

M. de Tocqueville has not stated his facts quite correctly. The difference between the expression of public opinion on the subjects alluded to, in this country and in Europe, is not so great as he supposes it to be; and so far as it is real, it is easily accounted for by the difference in the state of society.

It is far from being correct, to say that there is no expression of opinion among us against religion, against morals, or against the republican theory of Government. Irreligious and immoral books circulate to a certain extent and are occasionally made the subjects of public prosecution. This, however, we rejoice to say, takes place to a much less extent than in Europe, and the difference is readily accounted for by a real difference in the state of society, which M. de Tocqueville himself is the first to acknowledge and even to insist upon as the basis of his reasoning on the subject of our political institutions. The almost universal respect for religion and purity of private morals are largely dwelt upon throughout the work, and justly described as the great security of our liberty…

In the same way we account for the absence, to a great extent, of any demonstration of opinion in opposition to republican theories of government. To say that no such opinion is ever expressed, would not be true. We might mention, as an example to the contrary, Fisher Ames, one of the finest writers our country has produced, who had contracted, from the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed, a strong distaste for democratic principles of Government, and expressed it, not only without hesitation, but with extraordinary power of eloquence.  Governeur Morris took no pains to conceal his dislike of democracy. In fact, the political school to which both these gentlemen belonged, and of which Hamilton was the leader, considered democracy not, as M. de Tocqueville correctly represents it, as the principle, but as the disease of our political institutions. Far from concealing this opinion, they filled the newspapers with it for years, in discussion. And even at the present day, the number of respectable journals which openly avow strongly anti-democratic opinions, to an extent implying fully a preference for the strong forms of Government of aristocracy or monarchy, is not inconsiderable…The general satisfaction of the people with the existing form of government—their conviction of its superiority over all others—their self-complacency at being able to reduce to practice so beautiful a theory, which had been previously regarded as visionary and impracticable, are pointed out by our author as remarkable traits in the national character. Miss Martineau describes the universal contentment of the people with the existing political institutions, as sublime. What wonder, then, that there should be but little expression of opinion to the contrary? If the people are all, not affectedly, but sincerely, enthusiastic in their attachment to republican principles, why resort to forced suppositions to account for the fact that they do not declare themselves openly in favor of aristocracy and monarchy?…

The absence of any open opposition to religion, good morals, and republican government, is not owing, as our author supposes, to the omnipotence and tyranny of the majority, but correctly indicates the almost universal sentiment of the people on those subjects. Upon other matters on which opinion is divided, our minorities certainly express themselves with at least as much freedom as majorities, and not unfrequently with a violence in direct proportion to their weakness.